An intense and disturbing investigative piece published by the Arkansas Times alleges that State Representative Justin Harris, a devout Christian who also owns a religious preschool, gave away two little girls he and his wife had adopted six months before. The little girls were "re-homed" with a former teacher at the preschool, who then sexually abused one of them.
The story, by Arkansas Times reporter Benjamin Hardy, alleges that 38-year-old Eric Cameron Francis was essentially handed his six-year-old victim by Rep. Harris and his wife Marsha. The Harrises have three biological sons, and announced in March of 2013 that they'd adopted two little girls, the six-year-old and her three-year-old sister. But the Times learned that six months after the adoption was finalized, the girls were living with Francis in Bella Vista, about 45 miles away from the Harris home in West Fork. The Francis family also had three other adopted children.
Francis taught at the preschool Harris owns, Growing God's Kingdom, for about three months before he was apparently fired in January of 2014 for "poor work attendance." But the girls were left with the Francis family even after Harris fired him. In March of that year, someone placed an anonymous call to the state's child abuse hotline. The caller, Hardy writes, stated that the Harrises "gave their adoptive children to a family" and "that family in turn gave the children to another family." The girls were interviewed by the state police. During the interview, the six-year-old disclosed that Francis had sexually abused her.
According to jail records, Francis was convicted of rape and second-degree sexual assault. He will serve 40 years in prison. Rep. Harris, meanwhile, has refused to comment on allegations that he gave away his adopted children, telling the Times that their story was "evil" and meant to "smear" him, and, Hardy writes, becoming "visibly upset:"
When asked whether he rehomed his adoptive children with another family, he replied, "I'm not confirming that." When asked about the statements made in the State Police report in the Francis case, Harris said he hadn't read the file because of the disturbing descriptions of sexual abuse that they contain.
Harris then quoted Isaiah 54:17: "No weapon forged against you will prevail, and you will refute every tongue that accuses you."
Harris is a Tea Party-affiliated kind of guy: until now, he's been best known for a series of bizarre, ideologically-flavored legislative attempts: a demand that school districts be allowed to erect Nativity scenes and say "Merry Christmas," for example. Growing God's Kingdom also came in for some controversy, given that Harris took state funds while running what he openly said was a religious institution, which isn't allowed, even in Arkansas. (Oddly, the school also appeared to have some undocumented children among its pupils, even as Harris inveighed against "illegal immigrants.")
The Times says it's likely that the Harrises received subsidy payments for adopting the girls, given that they weren't infants and one had what court documents described as "significant behavioral problems" stemming from past trauma. Hardy writes that the six-year-old told investigators she had been sexually abused by a family member before entering foster care.
"Re-homing" isn't always exactly illegal, but it's certainly not okay, amounting to what is essentially a gray market for children. In some cases, it can constitute abandonment. In 2013, Reuters published a series on American parents who were giving away their internationally-adopted children on Internet forums to people they had never met.
Harris responded to the allegations by telling the Arkansas Democrat-Gazette they gave the subsidy payments to the Francis family for the girls' care and that they seemed to be doing well there. "We would have never knowingly put a child in harm's way, and anyone who knows us knows that," he told the paper. He's also deleted his Twitter page (a cached version is available here) and made his Instagram private.
Image via AP